Ohio State enters its College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Clemson as a 7½-point underdog. Being a distinct underdog is a new role for Ohio State, which entered its matchup with Clemson last season as a two-point underdog.
Ohio State controlled much of that game last season, scoring on four of its first five drives. Ultimately, red-zone failures, Trevor Lawrence’s legs and the dynamism of Travis Etienne catching the ball out of the backfield ended up undoing Ohio State. (Buckeye fans will be quick to remind you that the officials didn’t help.)
So what can Ohio State do this year to pull the upset? We spoke to 10 coaches and scouts familiar with Ohio State and Clemson to see how this version of Ohio State matches up with this version of Clemson.
Here’s a look through the eyes of the experts at the key matchups, personnel issues and X-factors that will determine the game.
1. Win up front on defense
In Trevor Lawrence’s three seasons at Clemson, this roster has the least amount of talent from 1-44 on the two-deep. No place is that more glaring that the offensive line, which has high-end left tackle Jackson Carman and four other pedestrian players.
Ohio State’s defensive front lacks a Bosa-like disruptor and certainly misses Chase Young’s edge rushes, but the Buckeye front four gives OSU a distinct advantage. The Buckeyes are going to try to stop the run like Notre Dame did in holding Travis Etienne to 28 carries on 18 yards in those teams’ first matchup.
The key for Ohio State will be defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, who has fewer sacks and tackles than fellow tackle Tommy Togiai but has been more disruptive. “I thought Garrett was explosive and violent and played with great leverage,” said an opposing assistant. “He popped out on film, people had a really hard time blocking him.”
Ohio State plays more zone than past seasons, as they flash Cover 3, Cover 1 and mix in some man, according to coaches. But any path to victory starts up front.
2. Stop the obvious
The two best players on the field Friday will be in the Clemson backfield – Lawrence and Etienne. The key for Ohio State will be limiting them in the ancillary roles that they starred in during this game last season – Lawrence as a runner (107 yards, including a 67-yard TD) and Etienne as a pass catcher (three catches for 98 yards and two TDs).
That’s easy to write and much more difficult in reality. Ohio State’s glaring defensive weakness is at safety, and it will be interesting if true freshman safety Lathan Ransom gets more snaps after his key pass breakup sealed the game against Northwestern. Does the OSU staff trust him enough to thrust him into a bigger role?
So how do you slow Etienne in the pass game and curb Lawrence’s running? (And it’s obvious that Clemson is more willing to run Lawrence in high-leverage games like this than against, say, Furman.)
“You don’t want to bracket Etienne, but in order to slow him down you need to put a safety or nickel on him,” said an opposing assistant. “You don’t want to put a linebacker on him. Some teams have gone Cover 0 and put a safety on him.”
As for Lawrence, the important thing for Ohio State’s defensive front will be to stay in their rush lanes. That will take discipline and potentially impact the potency of the pass rush, but the Buckeyes learned the hard way last season what happens when he escapes.
Ohio State also needs a better performance that they’ve gotten from Shaun Wade this season. Wade’s NFL stock has fallen as he’s struggled to adjust to guarding players on the outside. One NFL scout said Wade is playing like he’s afraid of “turning it loose.”
The good news for Ohio State is that Clemson’s receiver talent is a huge dip from Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, who the OSU defensive backs limited last season with press man coverage.
3. Get Justin Fields on track
Simply put, Justin Fields hasn’t played well in 2020. In the two games against teams that will finish ranked, he threw five interceptions and just two touchdowns.
Fields has played infrequently thanks to OSU’s staccato schedule, and there’s been difficulty getting in rhythm because of all the changes on the offensive line and players missing at wide receiver.
But Fields has looked lost at times. His decision-making has been suspect and he’s been prone to high-risk passes that would make a jayvee coach wince.
How can Fields get on track? Running the ball will be a start. (A safe prediction is that both quarterbacks have double-digit rushes.) Fields had one 100-yard rushing game in OSU’s six games this season. OSU lacks quarterback depth and experience, which has always made OSU coach Ryan Day hesitant to run Fields.
But with Clemson’s defensive line a shell of the unit two years ago and the Tigers’ linebacking crew a generally middling bunch, look for OSU to take advantage of Fields’ legs. That could help open things up on the outside, as Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, who is returning from a COVID-19-related absence, have the ability to be dynamic playmakers for Fields. “He hasn’t been in rhythm,” an opposing coach said. “When he finds his rhythm, he’s pretty scary.”
Can Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables get in Fields’ head and rattle him? That’ll be the story of the early part of the game.
4. Will Trey Sermon keep rolling?
One of the most impressive performances of the entire season came when Sermon rolled through Northwestern’s defense for an Ohio State-record 331 yards in the Big Ten title game.
The fundamental tension for Ohio State is whether that performance was a blip or the start of a trend. “I think they finally found a running back,” said an opposing assistant coach. “Master Teague is a good player. But he’s not like [Sermon].”
While Sermon doesn’t have the year-in-year-out productivity of Etienne, who is the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, he does present problems.
Day often errs on the side of aggression with his play-calling. Could we see a gameplan that’s based on running behind three elite interior offensive linemen – guards Harry Miller and Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers? (That could come with some “sugar huddling,” which would slow tempo, in order to avoid Ohio State’s signals being stolen as we dove into yesterday.)
5. Can Ohio State exploit Clemson’s secondary?
It’s interesting that Clemson safety Nolan Turner will be out for the first half of the Ohio State game because of a targeting penalty. If not for a miscommunication, Turner could have ended up the goat of last year’s semifinal between Ohio State and Clemson.
But Olave ran the wrong way on Ohio State’s final offensive play, and after he slipped to the ground Turner ended up with an easy interception in Clemson’s 29-23 win. Olave had already burnt Turner for a fourth-quarter touchdown, and Day appeared to be calling for that matchup again. But Olave ran the wrong way, and Turner’s can-of-corn pick ended up as one of the game’s defining plays.
So without Turner, a second-team All-ACC safety, expect Ohio State to pick on his replacement. Either sophomore Joseph Charleston or sophomore Lannden Zanders is expected to step in, and both will likely be tested by Day’s play-calling often in the first half.
Opposing coaches point to cornerback Derion Kendrick as the only sure-fire defensive first-round pick for Clemson in the upcoming draft. It’s a talent-light group compared to some past Clemson editions. But Venables’ creativity has compensated for the lack of talent, as one NFL scout pointed out.
“They just rotate so many guys,” he said. “They play like 20 guys on defense and they all play 100 miles per hour and blitz a ton and throw a lot of stuff at teams. That’s the style right now in that 3-3-5. He’s done more with less this year than ever. He’s usually got more talent.”
Added another coach: “There’s always guys open on film. But the offense never sees them. There’s always a [defensive] guy coming unblocked and free. When I watch their defense, sometimes it doesn’t look sound. But it’s super-efficient.”
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